Ballet Genève’s Romeo and Juliet—A Somber, Spellbinding Success
Review by Bess J.M. Hochstein
Photos: Christopher Duggan courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow
Those who think about performing arts programming could be forgiven for scratching their heads to find Romeo and Juliet on this season’s Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival schedule. After all, just two years ago that Ballet Maribor presented a strikingly contemporary Radio and Juliet, and a few years before that Rennie Harris delivered his hip-hop interpretation, Rome and Jewels. Neither of these, however, used Prokofiev’s swelling, oft-overwrought score, which is as familiar as the story.
Our familiarity with these elements is a boon to the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève production of Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Joëlle Bouvier, which is having its U.S. premiere this week, not only because it eases some of the storytelling pressures—allowing viewers to relax as they recognize, say, the Montague’s ball, the balcony scene (brilliantly staged with Juliet, danced this night by Madeline Wong, ascending the backs of ensemble dancers, who dissolve to deliver her gently to Damiano Artale’s Romeo, below), or the tomb where the lovers meet their deaths—and to focus on the movement of the dancers, which is impeccable and earnest. It also provides inherent contrasts between the high drama of past takes on this timeless tale and Ballet Genève’s spare, subdued dance, which casts its spell and holds the audience’s attention from start to finish.
The somber tone is set from the beginning. A tall shirtless figure in a long, black skirt, center stage in low light, standing on the sole set element—a banked, arcing platform—swivels a long pole, which reads as stirring the pot. The limp, lifeless protagonists, clad in white, are carried in aloft by the ensemble, dressed in black, with Shakespeare’s prologue faintly whispered above the sound of wind sweeping across a barren landscape, telling of “Two households, both alike in dignity” whose “ancient grudge” dissolves when “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life.”
The story unfolds quickly with excess elements trimmed, focusing in on a universal tale of tribal enmity, and the ramifications for those caught up in senseless hate. In dance, we see the lovers pulled and kept apart by their respective clans, dynamic tension in interactions between the rival families, and fight scenes presented not with frenzied flailing, but with contained rage, which attracts and traps the viewer’s attention. Through movement we see Romeo’s reluctance to take part in these aggressions— now he’s a lover not a fighter—and his despair when he is ultimately drawn in.
Those who came to Romeo and Juliet after having seen the heartachingly romantic and sensual duet Closer, choreographed by Benjamin Millepied, at last weekend’s Pillow gala will find a different portrayal of love here: young, innocent, tentative, restrained, and largely gravity bound; there are plenty of lifts, but the dancers always return to earth, albeit with a lightness and grace that would put classical balletomanes at ease. There are also suggestions of Martha Graham, in the weightiness of the movement, a white cloth that sheathes Juliet and dramatically lifts before her love scene with Romeo, Juliet’s grounded dance with black-clad women before she drinks her poison, and the somber procession that brings her to the tomb on a criss-cross stretcher of those long poles. Romeo’s pas de deux with Juliet’s seemingly lifeless body is heartbreaking; repeatedly he props her up, only to have her slide limply down, before he takes his own life.
Ballet Genève’s powerful, straight to-the-heart Romeo and Juliet, trimmed to its essence, will long resonate with audiences; it succeeds not through flash and flourish, but through focus and virtuosity. It may even inspire a few to return to Bard’s original text, or to see yet another rendition of this timeless tale just down the road at Shakespeare & Company beginning on July 8.
Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève performs through Sunday, June 26
Ted Shawn Theatre, Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA